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Whose Community? Yale’s Ties to New Haven’s Top Public School

On MAY 4, 2009, Hong Zheng, a research assistant at Yale University, tried to enroll her daughter in kindergarten and discovered that the district boundary of Worthington Hooker School, a public school in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood, divided her apartment building into two parts: in-district and out-district.

Zheng happened to live in the out-district half. Her apartment building, where she had lived for seven years, was only four blocks away from Hooker’s K-2 building, and two of her neighbors had sent their children to Hooker. When her daughter was denied a spot at the school, Zheng was, understandably, confused.

When Zheng applied, kindergarten spots at Hooker filled up first with in-district students—students who lived within the school’s designated boundaries. Those students were prioritized for spots in the kindergarten class, and there were rarely, if ever, any spots left for out-district students. As a result, children who lived in the same building as Zheng could attend a school that Zheng’s daughter couldn’t. In 2009, Hooker did not keep a waiting list—so, if Zheng wanted to get her daughter into the school, her only option was to visit the registration office every day with proof of residence and her daughter’s passport, on the off-chance a spot had opened up.

Zheng’s story is one of many about the mysterious boundaries and pathways that allow some children—and not others—into Hooker.

***

“Worthington Hooker School, as New Haven’s most culturally diverse school, prides itself on its multicultural and international student population,” reads the opening line of Hooker’s mission statement, from the first page of the school’s 2018-2019 Parent/Student Handbook.

Though Hooker claims to be diverse, its admissions history and strong ties to Yale suggest otherwise. Hooker’s student body more closely reflects the demographics of the university than the demographics of the city.

In its mission statement, in newspapers, and in online school profiles, Hooker is widely celebrated for its large percentage of international students and students who speak English as a second language. But the statistics and praise mask the fact that Hooker is considerably less racially and economically diverse than New Haven as a whole.

According to the Connecticut State Department of Education, Hooker’s student population for the 2017-2018 school year was 12.7 percent black, 8.9 percent Hispanic or Latino, 45.4 percent white, 29.8 percent Asian, and 12.2 percent Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) Eligible. That same year, the public school student population in the New Haven School District was 38.1 percent black, 45.0 percent Hispanic or Latino, 13.3 percent white, 2.1 percent Asian, and 55.4 percent FRL Eligible. That’s close to four times the fraction of black and Hispanic or Latino students and FRL Eligible students in the Hooker student body.

Hooker flaunts its proximity to Yale University in its handbook. One-third of the section titled “Our Community” is dedicated to Yale. The handbook boasts, “Yale student [sic] serve as tutors and mentors to our students. Many of our Yale-affiliated parents share their unique talents with our students.”

Annie Harper, a Hooker parent, former Yale graduate student, and current Yale faculty member, frustratedly told me that Hooker is “really a Yale school with New Haven kids awkwardly thrown into the mix.”

Hooker, with its strong ties to Yale and disproportionately high concentration of white and affluent students, is a hub of racial and economic stratification that does not reflect New Haven.

According to the city’s own policies on school choice, that should not be the case. Former ten-term New Haven Mayor John De Stefano, Jr. told me that the school-choice model was introduced to New Haven in part to promote more widespread academic achievement through school desegregation. Advocates of school choice purport that by admitting part of their classes by lottery, neighborhood schools like Hooker can better reflect the demographic profile of the city.

Part of the mission stated on the New Haven Public Schools of Choice website is “foster[ing] student enrollment patterns that reflect racial, ethnic and economic diversity.” Yet Hooker remains one of the most privileged public schools in New Haven. So why are there still such enormous differences between its student body and New Haven’s student population? Who is allowed to go to Hooker, and why is Yale’s influence on the school so powerful?

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Hooker’s ties to Yale started with its founding in 1900. The school is named after former Yale University professor, physician, and New Haven school board member Worthington Hooker. Since the 1980s, Yale professors and graduate students have openly discussed their stakes in Hooker.

In 1981, Hooker and other elementary schools in New Haven faced threats of closure due to budget cuts. More than 100 Yale graduate students whose children attended Hooker asked then-Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti, among others, to use his influence to keep Hooker open. Giamatti ultimately decided not to interfere, but the school stayed open anyway thanks to a budget expansion. When asked why he didn’t interfere, Giamatti told the  Yale Daily News in 1981 that Yale did not have an obligation to an individual public school, like Hooker, that would merit an intervention.

The News article does not mention any acknowledgement by Giamatti that Hooker educated the children of over 100 Yale graduate students.

Nearly a decade later, in the early 1990s, Hooker still had clear ties to Yale. One News article from 1992 praised the “unusually high number of international students at Hooker”—most of whom, the same article noted, were children of Yale graduate students or professors. Ironically, the article was published in the News’ “Communiversity” issue, dedicated to discussing cross-cultural understanding between the New Haven community and Yale.  

The high representation of wealthy students at Hooker reflects Yale’s faculty and graduate and professional student populations. In the 1990s, the average salary of a Yale professor was 82,266 dollars, while the average salary of a New Haven resident was 35,058 dollars, according to the Yale University Office of Institutional Research and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although Yale has not published demographic statistics on graduate students enrolled in the 1990s, the statistics Yale published for the 2016-17 academic school year are revealing. That year, international students made up 36 percent and 21 percent of Yale’s graduate and professional school programs, respectively. And in 1994, the News reported that the majority of the 42 percent of faculty living off campus lived on Whitney Avenue in the East Rock Neighborhood—right by the Hooker School.

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In the early 2000s, questions about districting and demographics at Hooker sparked controversy. The New Haven school district has been a system of choice for decades, fashioned to foster widespread academic achievement and school desegregation. The school choice placement process involves an application and a lottery for all students applying to magnet, charter, or kindergarten neighborhood schools. The New Haven Magnet Schools website clearly lays out the steps of the school choice placement process, the order in which preference is given to students on waitlists, and the names of schools to choose from. However, until 2011, the placement process for Hooker remained unclear to its applicants.

In 2004, parents began asking questions about preferential admissions at Hooker when out-district students who were children of powerful figures—State Representative Cam Staples’ daughter and former school board President Brian Perkins’ daughter—were granted early confirmed spots in the over-enrolled kindergarten class. Each year, the largest number of Hooker’s applicants are let into the kindergarten class, with few spots left for older students to transfer into the school later. The controversies surrounding Hooker’s exclusive and unclear admissions process, particularly for the kindergarten class, grew more heated in 2008 and 2009, as stories like Hong Zheng’s were publicized by the New Haven Independent.

Amid controversy, multiple administrators at Hooker and officials in the New Haven Board of Education offered unclear answers to the speculation that they gave certain students preferential treatment. Debbie Sumpter-Breland, the student recruitment coordinator at the New Haven Board of Education, told the Independent in June 2009 that kindergarten spots at Hooker were filled first with in-district students; the only way to get a spot, she said, was to come down to the registration office every day and hope one opened up.

Will Clark, Hooker’s chief operating officer at the time, is quoted in the same Independent article saying that whenever a spot became available at Hooker, former longstanding New Haven schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo would look at the list of registered students and personally choose who would be given the seat, instead of moving down a set waitlist. Clark added that, for Hooker, Mayo would give preference to siblings, those with transportation needs, those enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs funded by Head Start, and ESL students.

Later in June 2009, Sumpter-Breland held a school board meeting that turned contentious. Her response to questions about Hookers’ admissions process inflamed parents’ outrage. At one point, she reportedly threw up her hands and exclaimed, “That’s how it works!”

While parents kept pressuring the school district and Board of Alders for answers, the Independent obtained and published the coveted map of Hooker’s district in July 2009. The map had never before been available to the public. After years of uncertainty about how to get into Hooker, the map was expected to give parents and families answers.

***

The release of Hooker’s district map did not calm concerned parents. If anything, it intensified their frustration.

Hooker’s K-2 building, marked in yellow on the map, is on the corner of Canner Street and Livingston Street—blocks away from the district’s boundaries. On the map, Hooker’s district contains the areas of New Haven largely populated by Yale affiliates: Whitney Avenue, marked in red on the map, home to many off-campus Yale faculty members, and multiple Yale graduate student housing buildings, including one that’s marked in blue on the map, Whitehall, that Yale recommends to graduate students as “located within a highly respected school district” on a university web page about graduate housing. The map also shows that a surprisingly small portion of the East Rock neighborhood is considered in-district for Hooker, even though it is supposedly an East Rock neighborhood school. Additionally, the map includes Zheng’s address as in-district, only adding to the confusion over the school’s district boundaries.

After the map was published, stories spread of families paying off graduate students in the Hooker district to use their addresses, or renting a home in the district for the purpose of enrolling a child at Hooker and living elsewhere.

Annie Harper recalled that in 2009, she and her husband were Yale graduate students sending one of their sons to the Head Start pre-kindergarten program while living in the Hooker district. She said her son was the only student that she knew of in the program who lived in Hooker’s district.

Harper remembers the moment the map appeared on the Independent’s website. She described it as “worth its weight in gold.” Once they realized that Harper lived within Hooker’s district lines, multiple families in the Head Start program asked her, “Do you have an extra room at your house? Can I list that as my address?”

Parents complained that the requirement to apply for a spot in person at the registration office during normal business hours placed an undue burden on working parents and gave an advantage to well-connected parents who were tipped off through their social networks whenever a spot opened up. And parents couldn’t understand how a system like Mayo’s, where he personally chose which students to admit, could possibly be unbiased.

Finally, in 2011, the New Haven Board of Education responded to parent concerns and implemented a more transparent waiting list lottery system in all New Haven neighborhood school kindergartens. The lottery now affects schools that serve distinct districts, like Hooker. Open spots in kindergartens go to the first people who show up on registration day, while spots on the waiting list are assigned by lottery.

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The new lottery system may answer the question so many parents had with Hooker: How on earth do you get in? However, Hooker’s issues don’t end there. Despite a better and more transparent admissions process, the school still has major problems when it comes to race and class. Yet parents vie to win their children admission. So, why Hooker?

Hooker is not the problem. Rather, it is a small example of a larger problem that has plagued the city for three centuries: Yale, with its power and prestige, gets to dictate the narrative of New Haven on a platform that the city’s own residents don’t have access to.

When I spoke with John DeStefano about New Haven’s schools maintaining small class sizes despite the high demand for spots in kindergartens and elementary schools in the city, he told me, “Increasing the number of seats goes against the goal of creating smaller communities.”

Smaller communities are great in a number of ways: less anonymity in schools, closer student-teacher relationships. But when you look at Hooker, you have to question what smaller community the school is trying to create. A community of wealth? A community of privilege? A microcosm of the Yale community?

Before Annie Harper and her husband came to Yale and their children went to Hooker, they lived in Zimbabwe together. When they heard the news that they both were accepted to Yale for graduate school, they were, as she put it, “over the moon.” But soon after their acceptances, several people warned them about the “dangers” and “pitfalls” of living in New Haven. Even on another continent, Harper already had the perception of Yale being “some great university in a bad city.” With the heavy police presence on campus, the gradual acquisition of originally Quinnipiac land, and minimal university-wide education on how to engage with the city, Yale does little to change the stigmatizing narratives about New Haven.

The Yale bubble exists. You can see it on Cross Campus, in the Shops on Broadway, and up Science Hill. And you can see it at Hooker. Harper said it best when she told me, “Yale does a great job of keeping you here for four years without you feeling like you’re in New Haven.” The Yale stamp of approval, whether by word of mouth or through blue signs on buildings, has separated the good from the bad in New Haven on the university’s own, unchecked scale. Hooker falls in with the good partially because it’s one of the whitest and wealthiest schools in the city, but also because it has that coveted Yale stamp of approval.

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To learn about viable educational options in East Rock beyond Hooker, I talked to Anika Singh Lemar, a clinical associate professor at Yale Law School who lives in East Rock.She and her husband, a local politician, sent their children to East Rock Community Magnet School.

Lemar quickly realized there was a common assumption among parents in the East Rock community: if you live in East Rock, you try to send your kids to Hooker without even considering other options. Choosing another East Rock school over Hooker? “Nobody did that.”

When Lemar talked to Hooker parents, they would ask her, “Don’t you miss having art classes?” Shocked, she would respond that her children could take art, gym, and music classes at East Rock Magnet. Today, she and her husband are two of many New Haveners urging an end to what they’ve found to be a baseless but widespread “Hooker or bust” mentality.

Lemar and her husband initially worried about the choice they made for their kids. Then they read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ article in The New York Times, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” in which Hannah-Jones discusses why she and her husband—a black, middle-class couple—deliberately enrolled their daughter Najya in a low-income, predominantly black and Hispanic New York City public school. Najya could have gone to a “carefully curated” integrated school with just enough brown and black students to “create diversity,” but not too many. But her parents did not see that kind of integration as true integration that could solve educational inequality. They decided to live their convictions.

After reading Hannah-Jones’ piece, Lemar and her husband felt more confident. “When making parenting decisions,” Lemar said, “equity matters.”

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Equity does matter. It matters in stopping the narrative that urban schools like East Rock Magnet are bad or dangerous because of racist and classist ideas about their demographics. It matters in stopping the narrative that schools like Hooker are inherently better because they’re whiter and richer than others. It matters in breaking the Yale bubble. It matters in stepping away from Yale and seeing New Haven for the full and vibrant city it is.

 

Correction: this article previously misstated that Ms. Lemar lived in-district for Hooker. It has been corrected to clarify that Ms. Lemar does not live in the district.